The Autobiography of My Mother
Rosellen Brown, already known for her poems and short stories, has written an ambitious first novel. It is a remarkable attempt, both technically and thematically. The theme of the work is the conflict of love and law, a conflict which is embodied in the Stein family, mother Gerda, daughter Renata, and granddaughter Tippy. The story is told in the first person, Gerda and Renata speaking alternately, a method of exposition that allows great immediacy of effect. The fundamentally different styles in which mother and daughter express themselves constitute the most obvious key to the terms of their disagreement. Gerda, a lawyer, speaks with legalistic precision, marshals evidence, moves from point to point with rigorous organization. Witty and elegant, she makes a case. Renata’s discourse, contrarily, progresses by association, allusion, and metaphor. To sustain two so different modes of expression throughout the novel, to play them off against each other, is in itself a considerable technical achievement; this interplay is the medium in which the philosophical confrontation is worked out.
The story begins at the end, the day of the picnic at Torora State Park. The events of that day, the last day of Tippy’s life, frame an account of the preceding year, beginning with Renata’s return, after eight years of wandering, to her mother’s apartment in New York. She brings Tippy, of whose existence Gerda is ignorant, hoping that the shared experience of childbirth and motherhood may form a bond between them, may soften her mother’s heart toward her. But mother and daughter take up their old argument with scarcely a missed beat, Gerda accusing Renata of deliberately wrecking herself, making herself a victim, in order to humiliate her mother, and Renata insisting on her right to Gerda’s love, regardless of her flaws.
In the course of the year the quarrel intensifies. Gerda, at first operating from a pinnacle of cold detachment, gradually finds herself awakening to feelings of love and kinship for Tippy, a thaw that is not without pain; at the same time her animus against Renata increases. Losing her objectivity, she becomes more punitive in her dealings with her daughter, condemns her on circumstantial evidence of willfully corrupting Tippy, and at last comes to the point of setting in motion the legal machinery for removing the child from Renata’s care. Renata, on the other hand, begins in a flaccid emotional state in which she is continually awash in tears of self-pity and self-reproach. Bitterness about her wretched childhood, guilt, and desperate love immobilize her. Her progress, less radical than Gerda’s, is toward a more objective appreciation of her obligations to Tippy, and finally toward a tougher sense of self which frees her to stand up to, even to pity, Gerda.
The guiding principle of Gerda’s life is her determination to defend her dignity, to protect herself from humiliation. Born poor, a French-speaking Jew in the German border-town of Colmar, she learned early what it meant to be everybody’s legitimate victim. As a young girl, she witnessed a cataclysmic scene in the office where her father worked as a petty clerk, a scene in which her father’s abjectness was matched by his employer’s savagery. Responding to a racial slur with his fists, her brother Addie was permanently crippled, and the whole family hounded from the city. From this seminal experience springs Gerda’s determination to make herself invulnerable. As a corollary to this resolve, she separates herself from those who are vulnerable, for she feels that to involve her feelings with people who let themselves be oppressed, is to connive at her own degradation.
The law, she decides, must be her weapon and her shield. By sheer persistence, she gains entrance to Harvard Law School and embarks single-mindedly on her chosen course. Achievement is the essence of her character: not just law school, but Harvard Law; not just law, but poverty law; not just clients but principles. For grief and rage are frail foundations for a court case, but robed in principle Gerda is invincible. Her concern is not so much for the truth as for the law; lawyer-like, she does not disdain to improve whatever advantages are at hand, such as the slight edge of moral superiority that accrues to her as a result of the mistaken assumption, uncorrected by her, that she is a concentration-camp survivor. It is also assumed, by the public if not by her colleagues, that having suffered, she is devoting her life to other sufferers out of natural sympathy. In fact, the opposite is true. Sympathy, in her view, not only is unnecessary, but positively inhibits her ability to serve, “weakens” her, makes her “a blunt object.” Her sympathy is reserved for those of her clients who, like her, insist upon having life on their own terms, who learn from their mistakes, who counterattack. She herself, by her own...
(The entire section is 2004 words.)